November 6, 2008

Hope in the Hill District

On Nov. 4, I served as a volunteer poll watcher. I was assigned to a polling precinct along Bedford Avenue in the Hill District. This post has nothing to do with food. It’s just a recounting, not even in chronological order, of an interesting experience on what by many measures was a historic day.

It’s almost like a family reunion. The hugs flow. You’d never guess that many of these people see each other on at least a weekly basis. The mood is celebratory before anybody can be sure a celebration is even in order.

They’ve come to help Barack. Because that’s how the people here refer to Sen. Obama. He’s not a last name. He’s hope. He’s a friend. He’s what they’ve been waiting for.

“How you doin’, honey?”

“Today is a blessed day.”

“Mmm. Yes it is.”

There are other, almost alarmingly redundant, exchanges.

“Where’s the baby, sugar?” A question posed by the election officials – that is, the five 60-something women who might be more accurately described as the electoral matrons of this particular 5- to 6-block precinct in one of the poorest sections of Pittsburgh -- to numerous young women who, without a doubt, have only recently gained the legal right to vote.

“I just got off work. She’s with my mom.”

Others have their babies with them, often slung on a hip or waddling along beside them, boys in jeans and miniature knock-off Timberland hiking boots and pleather bomber jackets, girls with brightly colored pants and shirts and beads blooming from their hair. From the conversations, it’s apparent that many of these young voters have grown up in the Hill District. And now they have their own children. And all I can think: Do they have any hope of leaving, ever?

* * * * * * * * * * * *

“I’m not going in there if she’s in there, that nasty woman. No, no, no, I’m not!”

Out of the poll stomps a prospective female voter, maybe late 40s or early 50s, a pinky peach sweatshirt with something about God on it, a sheer black headkerchief, wide-set eyes with pin-point pupils, and a scowl that practically drops off her face.

Back in through the double doors, and back out, more shouting, more insults. One of the electoral matrons is a nemesis, a long-held revulsion of apparently uncertain origins.

If there were going to be confrontations, my poll watcher manual explained, they were supposed to be between some outsider, somebody “challenging” another’s right to vote or trying to intimidate them into a voting a certain way or not voting at all.

Instead, the confrontation is between two insiders, one of whom is torn between her disdain for another and her desire to vote for Barack. Her perceived enemy, one of the election matrons, is paying her little mind. She’s got other voters to process.

After some more raised voices and stomping and scowling -- and some tag-team diplomacy involving myself and another poll worker volunteer whose lived along Bedford for 40 years and knows or at least recognizes nearly every person who has come in to the polls -- the aggrieved party signs her voter card, gets her stub, and casts her vote. Outside, a picture is taken on a disposable camera, the scowl transformed into a crescent-moon smile, to commemorate the day she voted for Barack, nasty woman or no.

The young voters have come today. Babies or not. Jobs or not. Some times with their moms.

It doesn’t take much to recognize that this is not a typical election day on Bedford Avenue. One young voter. Another. Another. Finally, a quiet young black man with a jacket that says “New Orleans Voodoo” across the back shuffles to the check-in table, yet another first-timer. Without being asked, he presents his identification. He is, not surprisingly, known to the matrons.

Before he can move to the machines to vote, the suggestion is made to give a round of applause for the young voters.

“It’s so nice to see these babies,” one of the matrons says.

“They ain’t babies today,” another replies.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The voting machines are both feared and embraced.

When the polls opened at 7:00 a.m., they were not functioning (“Why it always in the black communities the machines don’t work?”). With about 10 people in line, nearly half say they don’t want to use an emergency paper ballot. In black communities, they say, paper ballots get mysteriously thrown away.

Even so, the machines are typically approached with trepidation. Some voters are almost reluctant to touch them, scared they might accidentally vote for the wrong candidate and even more fearful that, if they do, they won’t be able to remedy the situation.

One woman is convinced something went wrong and her vote for Barack won’t count. The distress is very real.

“He needs that vote!”

After a few minutes of reassurance, of walking through the story several times, she’s satisfied that everything is all right.

The occasional neighborhood feuds aside, the mood is resiliently festive. Voters are smiling, lingering among the sunlit trees outside the community center that have been dispensing golden leaves throughout the day, gabbing with friends after they’ve finished voting, even escorting back others who have yet to vote.

But fear quickly disrupts joy. Two police cars are circling. The children and adults in the projects across the street stop. Breathing gets slower. Eyes locked on the black and white. Over the next 10 to 15 minutes, the same two cruisers move through the streets in and around the community center with intent, like hyenas waiting for an injured wildebeest to fall.

The manager of the community center -- another long-time Hill resident who has been joking and catching up with acquaintances as they come in and out of the polls throughout the day -- yells to somebody across the street, although who is not clear.

“Where my kids at?”

Are they young kids who she doesn’t want to get caught in any potential crossfire? Or are they older kids who she fears might be the hyenas’ target?

The same woman has been handing out goody bags to the children of some voters as they exit the polls.

“I got something for ya’. Go into my office and get a bag.” Halloween extras and a t-shirt in a brown lunch bag.

Soon the police are gone.

Late in the afternoon, voters trickle in to the poll in small bunches, coinciding with the arrival of Port Authority buses. By 7:00, the poll is quiet. The matrons are tired. I’m tired. Adam, an entertainment lawyer from New York and a poll volunteer who has been manning the sidewalk outside all day, is tired.

The quiet also reflects a growing sense of tension. Is it going to happen? Will the impossible actually occur?

The minutes wind down to the poll closing. The TV in the center manager’s office is reporting the first results.

I keep coming back to something I heard earlier, one of the matrons outside on a cigarette break talking to an anxious friend.

“We’re going to have a truly blessed day, so don’t let nobody steal your joy.”


Brittany said...

Wonderful story! I wish, I wish, I wish I had been able to do something like that on election day. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

Anonymous said...

That's fantastic! Thank you for your contribution to the democratic process and thank you for sharing. I voted for early voting in Maryland, but I'm going to miss the "electricty" of a day like last Tuesday. It's a new day!

Adam Davids said...

Thanks for the memories. It was a great day and I look forward to visiting Miss Gail at the appropriately named Hope Center in the Hill District again. It was great meeting you, let's keep in touch and thanks for memorializing some of the events of the day.

Julie Cheh said...

I loved this! And I laughed when I read the "nasty woman" bit. That has become a tag line for this year's "nasty" election. Oh, how I miss the collective feeling of hope, optimism, and pride so many of us felt in November 2008. Sigh!